Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Ghost in the Machine

We held our breath, waiting for the first utterance of our robot voice. It wasn’t going to be “Mama,” or “Daddy”.PearlW-chinese-lantern_Extrude No. This was our mechanical baby. Talking with circuits, software, and digital utterances of phonemes being compiled at the speed of light like a phonetic jigsaw puzzle.

We’d recorded thousands of human-spoken lines which became phonemes to complete boring sentences like, “In a half mile turn right on….” Now we were waiting for the phoneme-aggregating, voice engine to combine the sounds that would speak “Gramercy Place”.

The complete sentence would start with the human voice and then the robot voice would fill in the street name by converting a text-to-speech (TTS) line into a human-sounding, “Gramercy Place.” Like the Wright Brothers waiting for their plane to crash we winced as the “Gramercy Place” part of the sentence approached. Would there be a shift in the basic characteristics : volume? presence? pitch? tone? diction? enunciation? pacing? Add to this another tier of twenty-four qualities in a voice, like “flutter” (a bleat like a lamb’s cry), or “honky” (excessive nasality), or my favorite “ventricular” (Louis Armstrong type voice.)

And we can add another tier of “listener interpretation” aspect to the voice.  What a listener reads between the lines of a voice they hear. Does the speaker seem “sincere”, “caring”, “intelligent”, “comfortable”, “certain”, “empathetic”, “interested”, “apathetic”, “cold”, “faking it” etc.

As any actor will tell you, a line can be read in perhaps a hundred ways. How could we expect a machine to jump through all the performance hoops of a trained actor? So, how did our computerized baby sound? IBM had finished their work.  The “Super Voice” was installed by Alpine into the Honda Odyssey and we sat around the parking lot, waiting for the first utterance. It was fascinating and eerie.

The voice sounded just like our voice talent, but, an “essence” was missing. With all the chopping and recombining of phonemes the “person” had vaporized. It was a “Stepford Wives” moment.  Synthetic caring.  The voice sounded just like her but “she” wasn’t there. She had slipped away during all the phoneme harvesting…escaping from the harvest…somehow dodging the phoneme harvester’s blades chopping up the elements of human speech.

Perhaps some engineer is working on a new algorithm that can inject “realness” into the synthetic personas we create.  We need a “ghost” to live in the voice files. But so far, we do not have a ghost in the machine. We may soon have. Or we may hear the machine show its first chilling signs of being a real person when it quotes the line from 2001, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

When you’re going for a ghost in the machine, you never know what you’re going to get.

Are you a Dinosaur or a Survivor

We’re in the business of change. Or rather we help businesses change.

One of our tools is video, because it is the most effective tool to reach people. But it’s just one tools on our toolbelt.

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Change is hard for companies, but the fork in the road is unfortunately a choice between following the dinosaurs to extinction or pivoting to a new survival route that is responsive to the demands of today’s business, not yesterday’s.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it!” is no longer a valid response. That’s what the dinosaurs said.

Bill Gates, in his book, Business at the Speed of Thought, says that the businesses that are in closest touch with their customers will survive. The communication line between business and customer must be instant and vibrant. To liken it to a marriage, it would be hard to imagine a marriage growing if the couple seldom spoke to each other or shared their feedback. In short, constant improvement is the key to survival both in our personal lives and in our professional lives. And that means GOOD communication.  Not just any communication. You need “nitty-gritty” communication.


There are many businesses losing market share and risking extinction because they are out of touch with their customer and gambling they can get them back somehow. But they’re gambling blindfolded because they’re relying on bad data, i.e. opinions, bright ideas, something edgy, fresh, out of the box,  etc. etc.

Too many businesses rely on ad agencies and research groups that feed them graphs and insights derived from numerous sources of bad data. What I mean by bad data is research done with the wrong instruments. They derive data but the tools used color the data to present a false picture. And then, the rocket starts to go off track. And even though millions are spent on the advice of “know-best” experts, the target is missed, executives replaced, agencies fired etc.

One of our clients, was full of data but no one could figure out “the why” that explained why sales were falling.  I won’t give you their name but it wasn’t until our team went out into the trenches of the sales floor and talked to sales people that the why was discovered.  In fact, there were multiple why’s.  We derived a handling and sales doubled.

So what’s the solution? Finding the “real why.” That takes work in the trenches. That takes establishing a good communication line with those in the trenches so they’re comfortable in saying what’s REALLY going on, rather than politically-correct or “safe” answer to questions.

There’s a whole technology to it, actually. It’s a technology I rarely see applied in research methods used by many. I know ours works, because it has. Glowing success stories. You have to ask yourself, “If a company can really handle this problem, wouldn’t it be worth it to me?”

We always tell our customers, “Our job is to make you look good and come out smelling like a rose and looking like a genius.”